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  • Ravi Swami

"Tumbbad", Dir: Anand Gandhi & Rahi Anil Barve, 2018

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

While, to date, I've mostly been restricting reviews to films viewed via various streaming services, there are occasional instances of seeing films on cable channels, like "Tumbbad", a 2018 Indian, Hindi language horror film, on one of the Indian broadcast channels we get at home - a genre that tends to get sporadic attention from the North Indian "Bollywood" cinema.

Historically, the film industry in the South has tended to draw upon folk tales and village ghost stories for film, thanks to a rich tradition that merges religion with superstition, more so than the industry in the North which is almost entirely focussed on frothy musical romances and machismo, so "Tumbbad" (the title refers to the name of the town where the story takes place) comes as a bit of a surprise.

The plot revolves around a hidden treasure in a deserted and decaying mansion, the former home of a local lord of the manor whose family secret and source of wealth was the worship of a banished deity called "Hastar"- an invention of the writer that perhaps references H.P Lovecraft's "Hastur The Unspeakable" since there is no actual mythological equivalent, to my knowledge.

A prologue tells the tale that Hastar was borne of The Mother Goddess at the beginning of time but due to his greed, was cursed to be forgotten and that his worship was to be strictly forbidden, however, invoking the banned god and making offerings of raw wheat dough would reward the devotee with endless wealth in the form of gold coins that were kept in the deity's loin cloth.

Told in a series of flashbacks, the plot, set during the latter stages of British imperialism although this is not particularly clear until around the half way mark, the point being, I imagine, to suggest that the story is something handed down across generations, follows the son of a servant of the lord of the manor to whom the secret is revealed in return for sexual favours, with a warning that revealing the secret to outsiders will result in death.

Later the son, now an adult, enters the abandoned ruin of the mansion and after descending into a hole discovers a stone coffer that when opened leads to a womb-like space deep in the earth, and it is from here that "Hastar" emerges when offered lumps of dough crudely fashioned to resemble the human form.

It should be stated here that "Hastar" is not a singular creature but is the collective name for identical creatures that emerge from the "womb" and aside from the atmospheric production design and cinematography, is the highlight of the film - only glimpsed in brief flashes wearing a gold crown, a nightmarish twisted semi-human form that scurries about on all fours.

After consuming the dough, "Hastar" duly spews gold coins from his rear-end which the man collects up quickly before the ravenous fallen god has an opportunity to turn on him.

Gradually the son becomes wealthy but the source of his wealth is never questioned until he is met by government officials who on hearing the story become curious and demand that the mansion be handed over to the authorities for "cultural purposes".

Fearful that his secret is now out, the son, now with a son of his own, decides to seal up the womb-like source of his wealth, using his young son as a sacrifice to "Hastar" - however, the plan goes awry and he himself is turned into one Hastar's own at the conclusion.

There is a clearly a huge wealth of material to draw upon in Indian folk tales and myths that hasn't really been tapped into in Indian cinema and this is the main strength of the film, however it is severely let down by confusing editing and a chiaroscuro lighting style using natural light, like candle flame, so that much of the frame is in darkness even in scenes set in daylight. Another creative decision was to shoot during what seems to be an endless Monsoon season where everything is drenched in rain as storm clouds roll by incessantly, as if to signal "horror movie" in a very obvious way in every shot.

The choppy, disjointed editing seems to be a way of provoking unease in the viewer, which it does but in the wrong way, resulting in a loss of narrative thread, added to deciphering the images on screen when all you can see are forms lit by naked flame in pitch darkness a lot of the time.

Plus points are the visual effects and art direction of a level that I haven't seen in previous horror film offerings from India - the womb-like home of "Hastar" is suitably fleshy and quite unexpected and "Hastar" itself is either very good prosthetics or CGI - it's hard to tell - and suitably terrifying.

Overall, the film succeeds in delivering a half-decent attempt at the horror genre and my advice would be to view it via Blu-Ray or DVD since the broadcast version was heavily edited to remove gory scenes, never a good idea since you're left wondering what happened to such and such a character as they suddenly and inexplicably disappear.

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